Do you remember – especially before the advent of the internet – being in need of a definition or a proper spelling of a word and turning to your home’s, school’s, or work’s copy of a Merriam-Webster dictionary? That dictionary you used was based on the life’s work of one ambitious American, Noah Webster. Webster’s legacy continues today, not only in his printed dictionaries and now the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, but in the Americanized version of English that he helped to standardize after the Revolution.
Noah Webster was born on October 16, 1758 to a well-respected West Hartford, Connecticut family. He and his siblings received a great deal of attention from his parents in the form of instruction on religion, morality, and academic subjects. In The Forgotten Founding Father (2010), Joshua Kendall argues that Webster gleaned from his upbringing an admiration for his authoritarian parents as well as a view of himself dependent on his accomplishments (15). He engaged in private studies with a local pastor before entering Yale College in the 1770s, where he developed revolutionary sympathies as he lived through events like the Battles of Lexington and Concord, after which he showed his patriotism by joining his classmates in a student-directed military drill. After graduating from college in 1778, Webster turned to the law profession. He soon redirected his career to teaching for a more stable income, and founded a successful school in Sharon, Connecticut in 1781. Webster went back and forth between teaching assignments for a number of years. He then turned his attention to what would be a best-selling project, uniting his ambitions for nationalism, “fame and silver dollars” (Kendall, 71).
In these post-Revolutionary years, Webster voiced strong convictions that a national language would unify the independent and distinct states. He published his American Spelling Book in 1783 as the first of a three-part series on the English language. Webster wrote in his preface that he wished to “diffuse uniformity and purity of language in America [and] destroy provincial prejudices” which he believed had arisen as a result of unstandardized spellings and varied pronunciations of words. Webster borrowed heavily from Thomas Dilworth’s A New Guide to the English Tongue, printed in England in the mid-eighteenth century. Webster added key modifications, however, including the fact that the language of his speller was more readable (Kendall, 72). Furthermore, he employed standardized syllables that reflected pronunciation, as opposed to Dilworth’s syllables based on Latin grammatical rules (Kendall, 74). Webster also included moral lessons instead of heavy Christian concepts. His Spelling Book took off, selling a million and a half copies between 1783 and 1801. This number is significant considering that the U.S. population was only about 2.8 million people in 1780 (Lemon, 122). AAS holds multiple editions of the Spelling Book, including a 1789 edition and a corresponding digital copy.
Webster kept busy after his successful Spelling Book, retaining an interest in the development of his new nation and its education. In the 1780s, he published his own version of the New-England Primer, a text originally published by an Englishman in the seventeenth century that had been reprinted throughout the colonies for decades due to a lack of copyright laws. AAS holds multiple editions of Webster’s adapted Primer. Furthermore, Webster composed a work called Sketches of American Policy (1785), which articulated proposals for a structure of a strong, balanced federal government as an alternative to the Articles of Confederation. Never idle, Webster travelled the country giving lectures on the English language. He also penned works advocating the ratification of the new Constitution.
Despite the success of his Spelling Book, Webster was publicly scorned by many leading Americans when he first proposed in 1800 to compile An American Dictionary of the English Language. Webster stuck to his linguistic efforts, however, beginning work on the Dictionary in 1807. He put in full work days engaging such books as Samuel Johnson’s popular English dictionary and Robert Ainsworth’s Latin one, while himself contributing “meanings and distinctions” (Kendall, 260).
Overcoming early criticism, Webster’s Dictionary was well received upon its publication in 1828; it was a major feat that brought significant increases and changes to a more standardized and Americanized English language. Webster included 70,000 words, greatly exceeding Johnson’s dictionary of the same period. He helped standardize changes from British English that were previously used only erratically in America, such as eliminating superfluous letters in certain words. His dictionary included even quotidian words and scientific expressions; it was also influential for his clear and thorough definitions (Kendall, 304). AAS holds many editions of Webster’s Dictionary, including the 1828 two-volume publication.
An American Dictionary of the English Language was far from unbiased; Webster inserted his rigid moral values and personal views in the definitions. For example, as an American Patriot who had supported the rebellion against King George III just a few decades earlier, Webster’s negative opinion of kings shone through in his definitions of the words “monarchy” and “monarchal.” For the former, he offers as an example the quote “‘A free government has a great advantage over a simple monarchy’ J. Adams;” for the latter: “‘Satan, whom now transcendent glory raised / Above his fellows, with monarchal pride’ – Milton.” Despite his anti-monarchal views, Webster did not advocate a very inclusive republican system of government. Richard Rollins, in “Words as Social Control” (1976), describes Webster’s growing desire for authoritative order around the turn of the nineteenth century. Webster, who in 1808 had undergone a Calvinist conversion, fervently pushed the ideal of God-fearing Christians submitting to the authority of male leaders with a very high age minimum. Webster thought that such men, unlike younger politicians, would be less self-interested in serving the public good (Rollins, 418). As Rollins points out, this distrust of politicians is hinted at in his Dictionary in his two-part definition of a politician, the second part being men “of artifice and contrivance.” The dictionary itself was not democratic in that it cost twenty dollars and was thus not available for the majority of private citizens. When the Merriam brothers bought the rights and revised the dictionary, however, they were able to create a six dollar version that allowed for a much wider audience.
An exhibit of several of Webster’s works is currently on display in the AAS Reading Room. You can see the enormous volume that comprises only half of Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, as well as his Spelling Book and his New England Primer. Webster was a crucial leader in adapting the English language to the new American nation, from teaching it with more logical syllabication to implementing key spelling reforms. His Dictionary, the product of decades of labor, was a groundbreaking model in content and style.
- Kendall, Joshua. The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010.
- Lemon, James T. “Colonial America in the Eighteenth Century.” In North America: The Historical Geography of a Changing Continent. Ed. Robert Mitchell and Paul Groves. 1987.
- Rollins, Richard M. “Words as Social Control: Noah Webster and the Creation of the American Dictionary.” In American Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4, p. 415-430. JSTOR.
- Webster, Noah. An American Dictionary of the English Language. New York: 1828.
- Webster, Noah. The American Spelling Book: containing an easy standard of pronunciation. Boston: 1789.
- Webster, Noah. The New-England Primer, Amended and Improved. New York: 1789.
- Lepore, Jill. A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
- Nietz, John A. “Old Textbooks.” University of Pittsburgh Press, 1961. In 19th Century Schoolbooks. Digital Research Library, University of Pittsburgh.
- Verma, Henrietta. “BackTalk: 20 Years, One Assistant, 70,000 Words.” Library Journal. May 1, 2013. Reviews.libraryjournal.com.
- Warfel, Harry R. Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1936.